Who Sells Darkness?

The media hasn't filtered out what good news there is in Iraq

Ancient wisdom says that people hear only what they want to hear. But that is so yesterday. Now everywhere you turn, people are hearing only what they don't want to hear, the stuff that sickens them, makes them angry and, frankly, drives them nuts.

In the media, you've got the ideological warriors, the high-paid gasbags who dominate the nonfiction best-seller lists and poke out of the TV every day like a bunch of clowns from a little car. They come in two varieties, conservative and liberal, but they share a single obsession: the outrageous dishonesty and unmitigated evil of the other side.

Now this insistence on hearing only what one abhors has crossed over into government, and into the Oval Office itself. The president says the only Iraq news he hears from the national media is negative, and that this is terribly irresponsible. All of these stories about death and mayhem, they simply don't represent reality.

"Just ask people who have been there," he recently told a group of National Guard families. "They're stunned when they come back ... and the stories they tell are much different from the perceptions that you're being told life is like."

So Bush decided to go around the hard-bitten national media and tell it straight to the folks out in the provinces, where he believes journalists are receptive to good news and play it straight.

"There's a sense that people in America aren't getting the truth," he recently told a reporter from a regional TV outlet. "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people."

Yet when Bush spoke directly to the people about all the news he doesn't want to hear, something weird happened. The filter didn't filter out Bush. To the contrary, there was an instant explosion of news about the big filter question, and then a wave of earnest head-scratching about whether Bush was right.

National Public Radio aired a lengthy discussion on the topic, featuring former White House aides David Gergen and Bill Kristol. CNBC's Capitol Report set former Clinton spinner Lanny Davis against MSNBC managing editor Jerry Nachman. On an edition of ABC's Nightline dedicated to Bush's complaint, Ted Koppel asked White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett to elaborate further.

"There's an incredible amount of progress being made in Iraq," Bartlett said. "And sometimes that progress is overshadowed by the violence that still takes place. And I think, really, what is happening here should be a debate about the content, as well as the judgment of what makes news in Iraq. We all know that in Iraq, that violence makes news. But violence has been with Iraq for more than 30 years. What is new to Iraq is freedom."

This is a canny argument because it cuts to the heart of journalism's value system. By not playing up the happy side of life in postwar Iraq, the freedom, are we not committing the ultimate media sin, i.e., missing the real news, or what's known in tradespeak as "burying the lede"?

Koppel is nobody's fool, and when Bartlett went on to call for "context" in the Iraq coverage, the veteran war correspondent and embedded journalist applied teeth directly to jugular: "Do you think the context, Dan, might have been a little bit easier to understand if the administration had been a little more forthcoming in acknowledging that things didn't quite go the way you were expecting after the war?" Koppel cited erroneous administration predictions about the cost of rebuilding Iraq, then added: "We can go into a number of other areas where I think the public, and certainly the media, may feel that they have been misled or misdirected."

You could take Koppel's point further and ask who's really zooming whom on the good-news/bad-news question in Iraq. Yes, the media are giving huge play to suicide bombers and other dire developments in postwar Iraq. There's no news like bad scary news—surely the Bush folks, with their dark uranium tales, know this as well as anyone. Do they really want to live in a world in which journalists find murder and misery passe?

But if you watch the coverage closely, it's hard to say we've not also given quite a lot of attention to the bright side of the story. In addition to the horrible news, there are countless recent Iraq stories that try to report both the good and the bad. "American Successes, Failures: Assessment Depends on Who You Ask," said the headline over an Associated Press story last week that began: "The American occupation force has the lights burning at prewar levels. Children, school uniforms starched and pressed, sit in classrooms painted and spruced up by U.S. troops. Rooftops bristle with satellite dishes—linking Iraqis to the outside world for the first time in decades. Yet the dollar cost of progress outstrips even high-end estimates for spending, and the cost in American lives is constant, approaching 100 soldiers or about one every other day killed since President Bush declared major fighting over on May 1."

Stories like that abound. Less frequent, but far from invisible, are Iraq stories that accentuate the positive, like the one that appeared in The Washington Post just a few days before Bush launched his offensive against national media outlets. " 'A Gift From God' Renews a Village; Iraqi Engineers Revitalize Marshes That Hussein Had Drained," said the headline. That story appeared on the front page. It was hard to miss it, unless you were trying.